In the 1970s, I bought the entire collection of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphonies with Sir Adrian Boult conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra. These had been released on the iconic Decca Eclipse label. The only problem was that Decca had not issued the final Symphony, No. 9. A short time later I bought the 1969 recording with the same conductor and orchestra: it was coupled with the rarely heard ‘Fantasia on Old 104th’ (HMV ASD2581). I was lucky to have a friend who owned an original vinyl LP of the present CD. I was impressed with this at the time and have long regarded it as not only my preferred recording amongst the dozen or so CDs currently available of this symphony, but as my favourite of the entire symphonic cycle. It is good to have the opportunity to add it to my CD collection. I note that it was released in this format some 15 years ago coupled with Malcolm Arnold’s Third Symphony. It was reviewed by Rob Barnett on MusicWeb International in November 2000. It seems to have passed me by.
This re-release of the composer’s last great symphonic masterpiece has a poignant historical footnote. RVW was due to attend the recording sessions at Walthamstow Assembly Hall, but died sadly a few hours before the session began. The short spoken introduction by Sir Adrian reflects this event- it has been included on this CD. The Symphony No.9 was composed largely in London during 1956-7 and also whilst the composer was visiting Majorca and at Ashmansworth whilst staying with Gerald Finzi. It was premiered by Sir Malcolm Sargent and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall on 2 April 1958.
The Symphony No.9 did not impress the musical public quite as much as some of the other works in the cycle. Michael Kennedy wrote, ‘there was no denying the coolness of the critics' reception of the music. Its enigmatic mood puzzled them, and more attention was therefore paid to the use of the flugel horn and to the flippant programme note (by the composer).’ In more recent years the symphony has been reappraised and is deemed by many to be a ‘masterpiece.’ RVW had originally intended to write a symphony based on Thomas Hardy’s great novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles. However this was largely abandoned. Incorporated into the structure of the symphony are references to the Sea Symphony and the tone-poem The Solent (thankfully now available on CD). Elements of the putative ‘programme’ do not interfere with the musical enjoyment of this ‘untitled’ work.
I find that the subtle balance of drama and lyrical eloquence of Boult’s 1958 recording is completely satisfying. It has been suggested that this is a ‘harrowing’ performance, reflecting the grief felt at the composer’s death by both players and the conductor. However, there is (for me) a warmth in much of this music that balances the passages that are clearly troubled.
The liner notes feature the original detailed analysis of the symphony derived largely from the composer’s own notes. There is also an interesting ‘technical spec’ of the recording technology which appeared with the LP. The original artwork is retained – which may not be flattering to the composer, but is appropriate to capturing the original mood of the disc.
Everest is in the process of releasing their entire back-catalogue of recordings. These are very reasonably priced, which reflects the fact that they are exact replicas of the original LP in length and in programme. The original advertising blurb announced ‘Great music…great performances…magnificent new recording techniques…there’s the Everest best-selling combination.’ All this holds good today. I can hardly believe that this music was recorded 56 years ago. Everything about this CD is perfect.
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Symphony No.9 in E minor (1958)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult
Rec. Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London August 1958
EVEREST SBDR 3006
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.